Autism and eye contact: More than eyeball-to-eyeball

People ask many questions about autism and eye contact.

Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are sometimes identified by eye contact. . .or rather lack of it. 

But that eye contact thing causes confusion. 

I was speaking at a workshop recently where a participant expressed concern.  She was talking about a student who learned to look at people.  Therefore, some people were saying the student wasn’t autistic any more.  It isn’t quite that simple.

Looking and paying attention can be difficult for our students.  The good news. . . .improvement is possible. Let’s explore the topic a bit.

More Than Eyeball-to-Eyeball

Looking is a critical part of communication and social interaction.  We learn information when we pay attention to people’s facial expressions, their gestures and other body movements.  We learn more by observing what is going on in the surrounding environment. 

Problems with eye contact

Students with autism are frequently described as having a lack of eye contact.  More careful observation can reveal a variety of looking behaviors. 

Sometimes students:

  • Avert their gaze to purposely avoid looking at people
  • Avoid eye contact vigorously as if trying to avoid pain
  • Don’t look because they are looking somewhere else
  • May look, but they don’t look at the important places where other people would look
  • Do not look like they are looking, but they seem to know everything that is happening

These students may not use their eyes effectively to enhance communication and social interaction.  They don’t use their eyes well to make a social connection with others. 

What does this mean for social skills?

Looking is an important foundation skill for effective social interaction.  Eye contact is the basis for making a social connection with people.  Looking at the right things can enhance communication.  Here are some reasons why:

  • A lot of social learning comes from watching other people.  Not watching eliminates many opportunities to learn new information and model new behavior.
  • People communicate with body language and facial expressions and gestures.  If a student doesn’t look at them he will miss very important pieces of communication information.
  • Eye contact lets people know we are listening.  Not looking or not looking like you are paying attention can make the communication partner feel ignored.  Then they may feel uncomfortable or stop communicating.
  • Focusing on less significant details can prevent students from grasping the big picture or the larger context of an event or interaction.

And here is one more piece . . .

I have talked with a number of teens and adults with ASD who have told me the same thing.  They say, “I can either look or I can listen, but I have a hard time doing both at the same time.”  They describe having difficulty when too much information is coming in at once.  

It is not just an eyeball-to-eyeball thing. . .

The solution is not just teaching children to stare at someone’s eyes.  Staring eyeball to eyeball won’t create the result we want.  You see. . .it is not just a problem with looking.  It is a problem with focusing attention.

So this is what we need to teach. . .

Teaching students to look and establish eye contact is OK. . .as long as we are teaching them to do it in a natural way. (We don’t want to teach them to stare like a robot.)   But this is not the only skill that needs to be considered. Here are more skills to consider. . .

  1. Orient to the person they are talking to
    Teach students to turn their body toward the person.  That helps students look like they are paying attention.
  2. Look like a listener
    We need to teach students to look attentive.  They must manage the rest of their body so they can attend to a communication partner.  Excessive body movement, playing with objects or related behaviors can disrupt good attending.
  3. Watch other people
    Students need to learn what to pay attention to.  Practice watching people can help. Make it a game.  Specific instruction in how to look, where to look, and what details to pay attention to can be beneficial.  Students may need help accurately interpreting what they see.

Establishing attention will help students become more successful in the social environment.   Developing the ability to look like an attentive communication partner is essential to enhance a student’s social presence.  It will make a difference in how other people perceive them. 

Yes. . .it will make a difference.



Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}